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Strength and Honor and Gladiator Leadership

“Strength and Honor,” Maximus Decimus Meridius said as he walked along a path created by his cleaved and hungry soldiers; They were visibly tired, many were already wounded from past battles and yet they stood with resiliency fueled by abundant loyalty, admiration and love of their leader and his leadership qualities.

“Gladiator” is one film that truly inspires me to admire a trait view of a leader. But when his (Maximus) journey is analyzed however, one can see that Maximum was not only a trait leader but a transformational one as well. What’s also interesting is that we see this heroic leader in both victory and retreat. We see that he is equally a leader when victorious and when defeated. We see that he can influence followers positively and not through coercive tactics. In fact, even when he amuses a mob of the arrogant Roman citizenry he still influences them to become better individuals. Thus, we will discuss some of the extraordinary fictional instances that took place in this well written story with hopes of drawing certain similarities between Maximus’ style of leadership and some of the applicable leadership models.

Maximus is a military leader and an excellent strategist. He can be described as loyal, courageous, kind, tempered, honest, decisive, charismatic and inspiring among many other things that we associate with excellent trait leadership. We see this in the beginning of the screenplay when he leads his cavalry head on in battle, when he prefers not to add more burdens to his already exhausted soldiers in moving a catapult that could create danger for him, and when he used excellent strategic initiative by surrounding and flanking his enemy. Notwithstanding, he also showed humility when his lieutenant exclaimed “People should know when they’re conquered” and he replied “Would you Quintos…Would I?”

From the early scenes of this film the viewer can easily identify that Maximus is a great leader because he possesses qualities and traits “that makes him worthy of our attention” (Nahavandi, 2008, p. 110). He is strong, one might say, fit to lead a battle and grant victory to his followers. But then we must make the assumption that traits alone lead to good leadership. Is this assumption logical?

Had Maximus lost the battle, would his soldiers continue their love, loyalty and devotion? Would the viewer be so inspired in the opening moments of this story? In other words, did Maximus become loved and admired because he possesses the traits of a leader, or because he won the battle. Could it be that the viewer admired him because he led his followers to victory by inspiring them and transforming them into disciplined soldiers through positive words? If his battle speech was “Kill All! No Mercy! For the glory of Rome” instead of “Alas, what we do in life, echoes in eternity”; would the viewer continue to believe that he is a good leader? After all, the objective of a General in a war is to win the battle at all costs. Or is it?

Leaders who possess timeless values of courage, loyalty, kindness, charisma and honesty are easily admired, but their traits fail if they are unable to use them to influence others in a positive way (Northouse, 2009). This is apparent here.

Maximus did not show his ability to transform in that early battle scene however. There, he had only shown his possession of traits, which by early leadership research made him a good leader.

This hero’s momentous transformational leadership came when faced with the great obstacles of fighting a trained military force in the Coliseum. He, and several gladiators who were always taught to fight one another had to face a great obstacle. United they could persevere, but divided they were surely defeated.


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To understand the saliency of Maximus’ transformational leadership we replace it with another form of leadership and judge the exhibited projected behavior. In other words, let us say that Maximus was not a transformational leader and that he was simply a (now reduced to a slave) gladiator who is courageous, honest and an excellent strategist. Most likely he would have simply said “Gladiators, I am a former General of the Roman legions. I know how to defeat them, so follow me”. This statement alone shows courage, strategic initiative, honesty, logic as well as possibly many other traits associated with good trait leadership. Rather, Maximus simply pointed out that “whatever comes out of those gates, we can survive if we work together”. He made no mention of executive command, an understanding of strategy, his experience or any other true and honest characteristic of his leadership qualities and skills. For gladiators who were trained to fight one another and to mistrust each other, suddenly they were transformed into comrades in arms. More precisely they chose (bold added for emphasis) to be transformed into a team working together to achieve an important objective.

Northouse defines transformational leadership as “the process whereby a person engages with others and creates a connection that raises the level of motivation and morality in both the leader and the follower.” This was an almost exact description of Maximus’ Coliseum battle. He engaged, created a life or death connection and raised morale for the entire unit.

However, one final consideration must be noted. Had the circumstances not been bound by a life or death situation would our hero (still in retreat at that point) have made his leadership decision differently? Thus, situational leadership theories may be in effect and would require a deeper analysis not suitable for the length of this paper.

Thus, Maximus employed not only his traits that are characteristic of a leader. He transformed his followers, and in so doing they transformed him, gave him back his confidence and fueled his drive to fulfill his promise to a dying Emperor who was like his father.

Did Maximus lead? Or was he led?

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Jophelias - Seer of Wisdom
The Main Seer.
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